Feminism | Posted by Caroline A on 10/17/2013

What My Mom Doesn’t Get About Being Transgender

Some time ago my mum and I had an argument. It all started when I was wasting time on Facebook, checking my cousin’s profile. My cousin is a few years older than me and is someone I’ve always admired. She’s smart and witty: basically our family’s answer to Juno MacGuff. I idolized her in a way, wishing that I had her confidence and coolness.

At some point during my teenage years she came out as a lesbian. Overall my family is well-educated and liberal but, as traditional Irish Catholic immigrants in North London, my grandparents took it the worst. The rest of us (smart, well brought up kids) rushed to accept her, albeit with some curiosity.

At some point, this cousin, who was always a tomboy, started to appear more and more boyish. I thought (as did many of us in the family) that her choices to cut her hair shorter and wear more androgynous clothes were signs of her experimenting with her identity. We assumed she wanted to play with the idea of being more butch. But it quickly became apparent that my cousin was beginning to identify as male more so than female in ways beyond her appearance.

It’s a wonder I was surprised that my cousin’s transgender identity created friction in our family. After all, we live in a society that doesn’t readily understand (or try to understand) anyone who is transgender. My mother didn’t approve of my cousin’s identity and as much as I argued with her, her stance didn’t change. According to her, my cousin was becoming a “freak” and ruining her life.

It’s clear from discussions in the media about transgender individuals (even from comments made by some who identify as staunch feminists) that some people struggle to understand gender beyond the binary. It’s not because they’re hateful, bigoted people (necessarily) but because it’s difficult to comprehend transgenderism when society hasn’t even completely worked out the concept of gender in and of itself. We still don’t exactly know the answers to questions like: What does being a man mean? What does being a woman entail? Are there inevitable differences besides anatomical ones? Does anatomy even equate to sex? If men and women are equal then why does gender identity even matter?

I don’t have answers to these questions and I think it would be wrong for anyone to claim they do.  But I have noticed an absence of discussion about these topics and I think our society is poorer as a result. If we honestly look at the progress we have made in the area of human rights over the last fifty years, we can attribute many improvements to viewing men and women through a lens of greater equality. The gay rights movement was one of the best things to have happened to feminism, in my opinion, because it afforded people a new way of seeing the role of men and women: it made them question the traditions that they held as truths. This movement begged questions like, “If being a woman doesn’t necessarily mean being a wife who tends to her husband (if she doesn’t want or need a husband at all) then what does being a woman mean?” And the answers (that we are still searching for to this very day) have lead and still lead to some of the most exciting and amazing advances in society and are absolutely vital for insuring full human rights for every person.

If we could start a proper discussion about transgender issues — one that would stop my mother and I from arguing over whether my cousin’s gender identity is “normal” or “right” — then even divisions like gender may become irrelevant as we start to see people in a whole new light.

I distrust the (seemingly popular) ideas of embracing complacency, promoting dubious libertarianism and valuing being unoffensive over fighting for real progress. To improve the lives of women, transgender individuals and people of the LGBTQ community generally, then serious, radical questions about gender need to be asked. I may not have the answers to those question, but I can tell you that some people will inevitably be offended in the process. But aren’t those arguments worth having if they result in serious progress?

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  • Talia bat Pessi @ at 2:04 am, October 18th, 2013

    Great article! Really interesting way to frame trans* issues.

  • kelli Busey @ at 3:33 am, October 18th, 2013

    As a trans person I just wanted to say thanks. The conversation continues…..

  • The Gender Binary | thefeministblogproject @ at 11:16 am, October 25th, 2013

    [...] The Gender Binary [...]

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